Technology & Trade

Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations Set to Begin

in Program

By Rachel Stohl – Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned Russia about sales of attack helicopters to Syria, saying that the shipment of new weapons “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.” While it seems obvious that sales of new weapons to the Assad regime would most likely be used to target civilians and opposition to the Syrian government, Russia is not violating any international law by sending arms to Syria.

In fact, the $40-billion dollar plus annual global trade in conventional weapons is relatively unregulated. While some multilateral UN arms embargoes do exist (though not to Syria), the international conventional arms trade remains free from international controls. Of course some States do have their own national laws governing their arms trade and some regional groups have developed regional agreements, but in reality only a loose patchwork of regulations govern the global arms trade. Ironically, more international laws cover the trade in bananas than the trade in arms.

Next month, Member States at the United Nations will negotiate a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Their goal should be to develop the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons. For decades, States have tried to close the dangerous loopholes that have allowed arms to flow to human rights abusers and terrorists, perpetuate conflicts, and undermine development with impunity.

When States arrive at the United Nations on July 2nd, they will have only four weeks to develop a Treaty text and determine the key elements of the Treaty, including the scope of the Treaty (what items and activities will be covered); the criteria that States could use to determine whether to transfer arms; the national measures necessary to implement a treaty; and the types of assistance States might need to fulfill their obligations to the Treaty.

None of these elements will be easy to negotiate.

Scope: States will have to best determine the way to define scope, both in terms of the weapons and related items covered by the Treaty, as well as the transactions and activities that States would be required to control. The UN resolution establishing the Conference only specifies a Treaty that regulates the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms. So, States will have to decide if they want to have simply broad categories of weapons left to State interpretation or specific control lists. The fiercest fights may be over how or if the Treaty should cover ammunition or parts and components for conventional weapons. While some advocate that the inclusion of ammunition and parts and components are crucial to preventing circumvention of the Treaty’s goals, others, such as the United States, argue that their inclusion would be impractical and would create unnecessary burdens.  In addition, States will have to decide if import, export, and transfer include the wide range of activities related to the international trade in conventional arms, such as brokering, transit, transshipment, and re-export.

Criteria: The Treaty will also outline the criteria and process that States will use at a national level to assess whether to authorize arms transfers. The United States, for example, already has a robust export control process, but other States do not have a clear and consistent system for making arms transfer decisions. Thus, the Treaty will need to provide the guidance for States to develop a system that lays out specific criteria for States to build into their national export control processes. The criteria will likely include elements related to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, support of terrorist acts, violation of UN arms embargoes, or even the undermining of socio-economic or sustainable development.

Again, this will not be easy. Some would like the criteria to serve as absolute prohibitions for particular arms transfers. Others favor an approach that would allow States to take weigh the criteria against other national security and economic factors before making their decision. Others would like the Treaty to mandate that States that decide to make transfers despite the risks must take steps to mitigate those risks.  States will likely decide to develop a tiered approach to the criteria – where some situations are absolutely prohibited, but others provide States the ability to interpret their own national interests.

Implementation: Unlike other international treaties, the ATT will be implemented by States at a national level and will likely not create an international body to monitor and enforce the ATT or question sovereign national transfer decisions.  In short, the ATT will tell States what they should include in their national export control systems, but not tell them how to do it or what decisions to make. Thus, transparency and national reporting will be key elements of the ATT. The Treaty will likely establish two reporting requirements – one that describes steps taken by States to implement their Treaty obligations, including national laws, policies and regulations that govern arms transfers. The other report will likely be a report on arms transferred under the scope of the Treaty. The Treaty will likely develop a small Implementation Support Unit (ISU) that would serve as the depository for these reports and make them available.  In addition, an ISU could serve as a clearinghouse for requests and offers for assistance to develop and improve national export control systems to implement the ATT.

The goal of the ATT is to develop common international standards for the global trade in conventional arms in order to curb the irresponsible and illegal trade and prevent diversion. From a more idealistic perspective, an ATT would also help reduce human suffering that often results from the illegal and irresponsible trade in conventional arms.  But, the ATT will not stop all undesirable arms transfers, nor will it stop all human suffering arising from conflict and violence.

The ATT is not a panacea. In fact, an ATT would likely not stop Russian arms sales to Syria. But, it would give States an opportunity to push Russia to adopt the standards in the ATT and encourage a dialogue. If an ATT is successful, it will make it more difficult to justify arms transfers when it is clear that those arms will be used for repression and human rights abuses. And, in the long run, the ATT will create norms related to State decisions for whether to transfer arms. In short, the ATT should give States an effective tool to highlight troubling and ill-advised sales and to create transparency in an opaque and murky trade.

Photo Credit: United Nations,

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Part of the Arms Trade Treaty Project
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices